In a previous blog, we assessed the potential impact of standalone 5G on connectivity services for operators and the evolutionary pathway to new business models it offers. To follow on from that, let’s look specifically at standalone 5G and how it could interact with other emerging technologies to support new applications, particularly within private mobile networks.
Firstly, it’s worth reviewing what standalone 5G represents as a technology platform. Non-standalone 5G uses existing LTE networking infrastructure, but the standalone version is based on 5G cells for signalling and information transfer, and therefore represents what many in the industry consider to be true 5G (see Figure 1). It’s founded on a 5G packet core architecture, so that rather than being founded on an LTE core, 5G can be deployed without pre-existing LTE equipment in the network — potentially making it a viable choice for private mobile networks in locations where LTE isn’t present.
Figure 1. Comparison between non-standalone and standalone methods of 5G deployment
Source: Deutsche Telekom
Importantly, the standalone 5G core is cloud-native and designed as a service-based architecture, in which many software network functions are virtualized using edge computing to support the full range of 5G features. Some of these are requirements for advanced enterprise uses, from smart factory automation, smart city applications, remote control of critical infrastructure and autonomous vehicle operation, to digital twins and augmented reality. The inclusion of artificial intelligence (AI) at the network edge offers additional benefits in areas including performance, latency, security, privacy control and power efficiency.
Further, a service-based architecture opens up the ability to slice the 5G network into customized virtual pieces that can be tailored to the quality of experience needs of individual services or customers and maximize the network’s operational efficiency.
Simplifying operations through the cloud-native design in standalone 5G means that telecom operators can test, deploy and scale new services at the speed of hyperscale web service providers — though going cloud-native also underlines the critical importance of DevOps, the agile process of combining developer and operational activities, that dominates cloud culture.
DevOps emphasizes an interconnected and continuous process of software development, deployment, monitoring, testing and improvement — a concept known as continuous integration/continuous deployment, or CI/CD. DevOps and the CI/CD process are essential in a standalone 5G network to harness its full potential as an ecosystem for service innovation. It incorporates open and standardized APIs that will enable the development community to use mobile network services when building new services for enterprise customers and to build a truly programmable network for faster service creation and implementation.
At CCS Insight, we’ve been tracking the suppliers that have already embraced the technology, notably in the demanding domain of a private mobile network, with its potential for sophisticated new industrial applications.
In the UK, Vodafone recently launched standalone 5G connectivity over its standardized private mobile network solution, which the operator refers to as a “Mobile Private Network”, to offer ultralow-latency, high-availability connectivity for enterprise customers. When paired with a multi-access edge computing solution, a standalone 5G private mobile network could be deployed to enable scenarios such as asset tracking, drone detection, machine-to-machine connectivity and condition monitoring.
Vodafone has deployed several private mobile networks across the UK, including one supporting testing tracks for Horiba Mira’s autonomous vehicles in Warwickshire, with on-site multi-access edge computing; a Ford E:PRiME factory in Essex, enabling autonomous operations as well as real-time analysis using AI for visual inspection for automated production; and 5G Centre innovation hubs in Aberdeen and East Ayrshire, which act as test beds to develop advanced uses for sectors such as utilities and smart cities.
As well as indoor and outdoor radio access network infrastructure for standalone 5G connectivity (or non-standalone, depending on the requirements), the solution includes either on-site network core infrastructure or access to Vodafone’s core network, and a management platform to visualize data across the network and connected applications, optimize and reconfigure network operations and parameters, provision new services and automate functions, applications and operations. There are also managed services such as a 24/7 helpdesk, data insight and analysis, real-time monitoring and early warning intelligence and support to develop use cases and integrate enabling technologies, such as cloud services and Internet of things (IoT) solutions.
In January 2022, Three Austria launched a standalone 5G network that supports 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. Features include end-to-end slicing and multi-access edge computing, unified orchestration, a telecom cloud platform, resource pool management and slice management, and network operation and maintenance based on AI.
Three Austria wanted an open approach to ecosystem implementation, enabling 5G, AI, IoT, cloud computing, data analytics and edge computing technologies to interact and create new capabilities, so the operator used an open edge computing cloud platform that couples 5G with AI, data analytics or virtual and augmented reality to enable the service and innovation desired.
Deploying standalone 5G with open APIs allowed the operator to support app and software developers and foster new industrial applications using platform components such as rich messaging, message service efficiency and media content security. Three Austria has established a “slicing store”, enabling it to create network-as-a-service products.
These kinds of network and service performance characteristics give a sense of what standalone 5G brings to operators as they seek to deliver new experiences to enterprise customers and consumers. According to GSA, by August 2023, more than 115 operators in 52 countries and territories had invested in public standalone 5G networks.
With a totally new, cloud-based, virtualized, microservices-based core infrastructure, standalone 5G brings benefits including lower latency, support for massive numbers of devices and programmable systems enabling faster and more-agile creation of services and network slices. As the momentum behind standalone 5G networks and devices continues to build, more examples of standalone 5G being used as a platform for private mobile networks and other service innovations will appear.
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